Thursday, August 18, 2005

Slaves by the grace of God   posted by Razib @ 8/18/2005 11:11:00 PM

I've developed a mild interest in John Brown, but before I began reading about him I wanted to refamiliarize myself with the cultural history of slavery in the United States...and I noticed a little book titled Islam's Black Slaves, and I had to pick it up. It's real short, I read it in when I was walking to the grocery store and other sorts of errands, but it's got some good data. This post isn't about slavery per se, but rather an issue that crops up now and then, what are the textual constraints on the expression of the Muslim faith? I have periodically expressed mild skepticism at the amount of text derived inferences people sometimes assert are determinants in the modal shape of behavior or median cultural expression. No doubt the constraints exist on some level, and ideas can change the world. That being said, I was curious at how slaves were treated in Islam because the sharia has explicit instructions on this point. The author begins by noting the standard talking points, there are Islamic hadiths which state that there is merit in freeing a slave, a mother and child should not be parted and the child of a master and slave woman is free and not a slave. The standard assertion that slavery in the Muslim world was never so cruel, dehumanizing and barbarous as the chattel slavery deployed for plantation agriculture that became normative in the New World (from Brazil to the American South) seems correct. One thing to consider is that in the Muslim world many more blacks were "house slaves," and so the brutal conditions of the field were less of a concern (there had been revolts by slaves in Iraq early in the history of Islam which discouraged the practice of slave labor on plantations). Nevertheless, there were incredible brutalities, especially in the high mortality rates in transport. And of course, hypocrisy and breach of "Islamic law" was the norm.

I want to highlight two passages from the book. First:

Muslim propriety permitted no such scrutiny as came to be common in the slave markets of the Americans. Male slaves might be eamined only above the navel and below the knees, female slaves only by viewing their faces and hands....

But, near the end of the book the author reprints an article from 1956 verbatim that described a slave auction in Djibouti where the merchants were going to transport their "goods" to Arabia, in parctiular, the city of Jiddah:

...A trader would nudge a slave's jaw with a stick and the man would open his mouth to display his teeth. Another probe with the stick and he would flex his arm muscles. Young women were forced to expose their breasts and buttocks. A dispute developed over the virginity of a tall young ebony woman, and during the hour-long argument she was forced to squat while one of the most prominent buyers examined her with his fingers. She was terrified; her trembling was visible fifty yards away.

Occasionally children were sold in batches. They did not cry, mainly, I think, because they had no tears left, but they held tightly to one another and kept looking around as if for help. Boys of about ten or twelve had their anuses examined; homosexual buyers are fussy about disease.

This and many other passages in the book makes the idea that Islamic slavery was more humanitarian as a matter of kind as opposed to degree seem ludicrous. Granted, in Islam there was far less stigma attached to slavery, and the racial bar was not absolute. Many of the great rulers were once slave soldiers, and potentates often had slave mothers (black and white). But my point in highlighting the above passage was to show how ludicrous the idea that sharia injunctions really made a big difference in the way slaves were treated, the bestial scene occurred in 1956, and the "merchants" were from the "fundamentalist" state of Saudi Arabia.1

There are other issues relating to slavery where sharia commands a particular course of action, but Muslims generally found ways to skirt the letter of the law. For instance, castration is banned in Islam, but eunuchs were omnipresent in Muslim courts. How was this so? There were multiple avenues of recourse. In some places non-Muslims specialized in castrations, in Al-Andalus it was Jews, in the Ottoman Empire it was Christians. In other cases slaves were castrated outside of Muslim lands, so that Prague in Christian Bohemia became a center for the generation of eunuchs for Ottoman service. In Africa the Muslims were often castrated en route. Sometimes, castration was attributed to a "mistake," the slaves were sent to a barber who was going to circumcise them and he simply grasped their genitals and sliced everything off (while European slaves generally had their testicles removed, black slaves had both testicles and penis removed).

Now, the issue of circumcision is important because the enslaved should be non-Muslim, one can not enslave Muslims, though one could encourage a slave to convert. But there were ways to get around this issue of not enslaving Muslims. In the Hausa states of modern northern Nigeria disobedience to the potentate was ruled tatamount to apostasy, so Muslim villages were attacked and enslaved and sold to pay off debts on the pretense that they were in rebellion, ergo, apostates (the rebellion might be due to an incredibly high tax which they could not pay). Another common argument was that Muslims whose practice or tradition deviated from the slavers were not truly Muslims, so they could be enslaved. Of course, sometimes there wasn't even a pretense at following this injunction, there are multiple records of African village leaders as well as Muslim "holy" men leading pilgrimages to Mecca, where they promptly sold everyone into slavery and absconded with the gold to some far off land (this occcurred in Mali in the 20th century, and a delegation to Libya was sent in the hopes of extraditing a man who had led his village on Haj and then sold everyone to merchants and then opened a business in Tripoli with the proceeds). As the demand for slaves increased the merchants became far less scrupulous in determining whether the goods were ill-gotten.

Obviously there is a lot more I could say, but I think I have made my point. Sharia stipulates very specific ways one should treat and obtain slaves. Sharia was almost always breached, sometimes quite blatantly. Nevertheless, often transparent pretexes were concocted to generate an imprimatur of correct form and practice. There seems to have been a wide variance of the expectation that a slave could have about his life, and how he was treated, or whether an innocent villager (Muslim or non-Muslim) could become a slave, and the threads that seem to be the variables that determine the nature of slavery are usually based on historical and social conditions, or just plain greed. All the while in the background are the same common Islamic textual injunctions and specificied practices, which nevertheless seem to have been rendered a dead letter. So the implication here is clear, some Muslims today justify slavery because it is the sharia (see Mauritania, where the white Berbers come close to engaging in racial slavery reminiscient of the American South, though perhaps operationally more like Apartheid South Africa). But in the past the way slavery was practiced violated even the most "liberal" precepts of the sharia, so it seems a short step for one to find out a way that one could render slavery operationally forbidden (for example, consider the argument against polygyny that since Muhammad said that all wives needed to be treated equally and this was not possible, polygyny is not possible). The key here is not just the texts alone, but the interaction between the texts and the stubborn social matrix which interprets the text in a self-serving fashion.

Addendum: This article might be of interest to readers: Extensive female-mediated gene flow from sub-Saharan Africa into near eastern Arab populations. Here is part of the abstract:

...a very high frequency of African lineages present in the Yemen Hadramawt: more than a third were of clear sub-Saharan origin. Other Arab populations carried approximately 10% lineages of sub-Saharan origin, whereas non-Arab Near Eastern populations, by contrast, carried few or no such lineages, suggesting that gene flow has been preferentially into Arab populations....

1 - The author suggests that slaves in the Muslim world played a very different role in the economy than in the New World (or ancient Greece and Rome for that matter!). Muslim slaves tended to be consumer items, they were symbols of prosperity, and also domestic helpmates. And quite often, they were also soldiers. These two states, household help and martial occupations, meant that slaves were not treated as commodities toward a profit motive in a production oriented economy like they were in the sugar and cotton plantations of the New World. Though the mortality rates during transport, and especially for males after the castration, were probably as high as the "Middle Passage," those that survived probably lived less dehumanizing existences in the Muslim world. One could argue this was because of the character of sharia (with its stipulations for good treatment toward slaves), but I suspect a more plausible explanation is that they occupied a different niche in Muslim societies, perhaps analogous to slaves in pre-Christian (and early medieval) northern Europe, as opposed to the mass agriculture of ancient Sicily or cash crop plantations of the New World.